Sunday, November 1, 2009

On hetero vs. homogeneity

How alike should the members of your organization be? This is a really tough question. On one hand, we value diversity don't we? Haven't we all been told that diversity does all sorts of wonderful things for an organization? It brings together different experiences, ideas, style of thinking, etc. so that you not only get the very best of the lot but you go beyond and achieve that magical 1+1=3.

Yet we also know that there needs to be some commonality amongst members of a group. We all know, for instance, that common values are important. I just saw a great presentation from Netflix on their corporate culture and how they insure that their employees truly share their values.

So how heterogenous or homogenous should we be? Well let's start with the ends of that spectrum.

Pure heterogeneity would mean that there is complete and total difference. No two people within the organization are alike in any way. There are no shared values, beliefs or ideas. There are no shared experiences. Heck, no two people even speak the same language! Clearly that cannot work.

Pure homogeneity would mean that everyone is completely alike. There would be absolutely no diversity whatsoever. Obviously this doesn't work either.

I think the received wisdom is true. Heterogeneity and homogeneity are both needed.

Heterogeneity is needed because much as in biology, social and intellectual diversity lead to the most favorable outcomes over the long term. Differences of opinion, of thinking styles, of experiences - when managed properly - do lead to better outcomes because the organization has a richer database from which to pull its answers. Heterogeneity is valuable because it maximizes your chances that you will survive over the long term by insuring that people from within challenge your thinking so that you don't have to be challenged as much by people from the outside. Magic and brilliance are most likely to come from an unexpected clash of ideas - the sort of clash that requires diversity.

Homogeneity is needed because without it, there is no organization. Homogeneity is the glue that holds together what would otherwise be a mass of individuals. Organizational logic allows for e pluribus unum - out of many, one.

So how much do you need of each?

I would propose two principles though I believe I have not yet thought this issue through sufficiently and would welcome your thoughts:

1) When the nature of your output is inherently creative and novel then you should favor heterogeneity over homogeneity. Organizations that are constantly solving new problems for which there is no existing template should value heterogeneity more. This could include the arts, some kinds of marketing, technology... More physical professions that literally require people to be pulling in the same direction probably should value homogeneity more. Again, I've already pointed out that there must be a balance. I'm just trying to lay out a general framework and provide some guidance here.

2) You should, in general, try and insure homogeneity on as few variables as possible. I suspect common values and a shared sense of the objective will always need to be shared. If people cannot agree on what they're trying to achieve and share the broadest sense of the rules of the road, then I fail to see how they can ever work together. Certain professions may require common experiences like certain degrees or professional accreditations. But often, companies have an unspoken sense of how people should come across. They require that people speak a certain way, dress a certain way... When this becomes part of the culture it can be very toxic. Ask yourself very carefully: do we really need homogeneity around X in order to succeed. Not whether you like it. Not whether it makes you more personally comfortable. Ask yourself whether you really need people to share X. Because if you don't, don't let your culture form an unspoken rule that requires such homogeneity.

I think it is critical to carefully manage this balance. I believe successful strong cultures will do this very well. You want an organization that gives people a sense of belonging. In order to have that sense, they must know to what they belong. It must be obvious to insiders and outsiders what you stand for. But if you take this too far, your organization can quickly become stifling. In the absence of careful management of the criteria for being "one of us," the list will grow. And before long, your organization will have all of the color and vigor of the Soviet Union.

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